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Korean Buddhism : The American Experience (1)
Lewis lancaster

The 20th Century was a time of extremes for the Buddhist tradition. It was a Century of destructive wars and of unparalleled development of technology, education, and social change. Buddhism was caught in the throes of these political and military shifts that both tormented and excited humanity. In Europe, late 19th Christianity was faced with the criticisms of the scholarly community who sought to free themselves from the domination of the church and theological barriers to scientific research. One of the most important voices in this rejection of religious power was Karl Marx and it was his influence in the politics of Communism that led to the suppression of Christian and other religious traditions. For Buddhism, the advent of Communism in Asia brought about governmental persecutions and restrictions that for a period of time threatened to destroy its place in the societies of Mongolia, China, North korea, Vietnam, and Eastern Russian provinces. In 1975, the Cultural Revolution in China and the subsequent developments in the Chinese sphere of Influence had brought Buddhist activities to a halt in regions where it has Once thrived. At that time, it appeared that the religious map of the world was being redrawn an Buddhism would be limited to Japan, Korea, the Southern Himalayas, and Southeast Asia.

However, changes have occurred which Transformed the environments of Eurasia. At the end of Cultural Revolution, China allowed religious practice to resume and as a result Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity have found a new generation of Practitioners. Who could have predicted in 1975 ; that within 30 years there Would be hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns in China, the Reestablishment of strong Buddhism communities in Mongolia, Western China and Tibet, Buryiat Republic, and Tuva?

Korean Buddhism has faced all of the problems of the 20th century and it, like the other groups in Asian Buddhist communities, has undergone rapid growth from the 1970s to the present. After facing the long period of suppression in the Chosen era: when the monks and nuns were forbidden to enter the cities, the hardships of the Japanese colonial period when monks and nuns were forced to change the very fabric of monastic life, the destructiveness of the Korean War when hundreds of ancient Buddhist structures and monasteries were burned, the rapid social changes of the post war era when urbanization absorbed the rural population where support for Buddhism was highest, many predicted the demise of Buddhism. Today, we find that Buddhism is establishing itself within the cities of Korea and there is no better expression of this than the establishment of radio stations, television programming, educational expansion at all levels including medicine, urban centers for practice, and international outreach. The opening of the Dongguk University hospital, said to be the largest in Korea, is but one indication of the expanding influence of Buddhism on the peninsula. After a long period when Korea was struggling to find a national identity following colonial control and foreign forces fighting over its soil, there is a new sense of pride and acceptance that has replaced the sorrow of defeats and the attempts to copy patterns from America and Japan. Buddhism is now being seen as a part of the culture of Korea in a way that Western religious institutions are not. Korean Buddhism in America has a different pattern of development from that of the homeland. First, the challenges of Western society and values are far greater in this environment. Koreans who have migrated to North America have attempted and succeeded in adapting to the way of life in the new country. One of the ways of expressing this acceptance of the American values has been Joining a Christian church. It must be said that the Korean Christian churches have played a major and important role in helping the emigrants find support community. I do not intent by my comments to criticize the ways in which religion has been practiced by those who came from Korea to the U.S. The churches did and still provide a much needed element of life for many Koreans in this country.

Buddhism has, therefore, found greater difficulty in expanding among the Korean Americans than it has in recent years in cities of Korea. However, the growth of interest in Buddhism has changed opinions among the current generation. As Buddhism emerged from the characterizations of the Chosen dynasty, that is the idea that it is a negative and destructive factor in society, it is now being studies and viewed in a positive light. Even among the professors and the intelligentsia of Korea, it is now permissible to be interested in or even practice Buddhism. The reconstruction of Korean history, art, and philosophy, after the devastations of the war and external influences, has opened a door for people to take a new look at Buddhism and its positive impact on culture and society in the past. As this more positive view has come into vogue, the Buddhist past is now seen as a valuable aspect of Korean life. From this has come a new tolerance for the religion and this is reflected in the increasing number of people who have begun to participate in Buddhist practice, education, and events. To some extent, the activity that we celebrate today is an example of how Buddhist practice has increased and found greater acceptance.

(Kwan Um Temple Symposium on Korean Buddhism in America
March 23, 2003 Kwan Um Temple, Los Angeles, CA)

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